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Malik Hooker 2017 NFL Draft scouting report

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Should the Bills go safety in the first round?

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Malik Hooker will become a 2017 NFL Draft favorite over the next few weeks and months and a popular mock draft pick for the Buffalo Bills. The vast majority of draftniks who’ve already studied the Ohio State Buckeyes safety are enamored with what he showed in his one year as a starter.

To kick off our scouting report project, let’s examine this rangy free safety.

Personal

Hooker was a one-year starter for the Buckeyes, a redshirt sophomore who took over after Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell left for the NFL. Originally from New Castle, Pennsylvania, Hooker was a multi-sport athlete in high school and his preferred pastime was actually basketball. He considered quitting football at one point, but stuck with it, and headed to Ohio State as a four-star recruit. A wide receiver, running back, and safety, his affinity for football grew, which eventually led him to be named the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Male Athlete of the Year as a senior. He was a special teams contributor for his first season of action before becoming a full time starter and star player in 2016.


Raw Talent

Dan: We will have to wait until the Combine to see the full extent of Hooker's talent. On tape, he looks like he'll test just fine. Hooker has outstanding range for a safety, and he'd be an ideal center fielder in a Cover 1 or Cover 3 system. His athleticism carries over to his ball skills and body control and he's capable of the highlight-reel catches you'd expect from a star wide receiver. Unlike other free safeties like Devin McCourty, Tyrann Mathieu, and Jairus Byrd, Hooker also brings impressive size to the table. He stands an imposing 6'2", and his body has enough bulk that he could handle himself in man coverage against tight ends.

Chris: Hooker has elite athleticism to break on the ball and the tenacity to make a play on it. Straight-line speed is top-level. He has the ability to explosively plant and drive on plays in front of him, and his fluidity is spectacular. Loose hips.

Here’s a prime example of his smooth athleticism. It occurred on a play in which he was initially beat.

His movements and change of direction look extremely easy, which help him coverage a lot of ground quickly. Amazing closing speed, especially when he’s tracking the football. Hooker shouldn’t be able to move as rapidly as his does for a 6’2”, 200-plus pound safety. He is not limited athletically whatsoever.

Adam: While still young and developing as an athlete, Hooker makes plays that jump off of the tape and give real promise that he could develop into a play-making safety at the NFL level. Able to dunk with authority in high school basketball, he’ll likely post a vertical jump near or at the top of the defensive backs group, and those springs directly contributed to a tipped ball and one handed interception he pulled in against Bowling Green.

Here’s that spectacular pick:

Though he’s not necessarily an imposing figure on the back end, he has adequate size at 6’2” and 205 pounds and could easily add another ten to fifteen pounds between natural growth and weight-room commitment. He has instincts in space you simply can’t teach, and when he gets the ball in his hands, he knows exactly what he’s doing with it. At this point in time, we don’t have hard data to go by in the form of combine numbers, but he passes the eyeball test and will more than likely translate that to a strong showing in Indianapolis.


Run Support

Dan: With his size and range, Hooker can have an impact in the box - he doesn't just have to play twenty yards deep. In 2016, he had 5.5 tackles for loss. This is still an underdeveloped part of his game. Hooker is a shoulder tackler, and while safer, it makes him much more susceptible to whiffs. According to the charting by CFB Film Room, he missed 14 of his 88 tackle attempts - a sky-high 15.9 percent which ranked second on the team.

He also has to be more realistic about his pursuit angles, a common issue with athletic safeties. Hooker misjudges the speed of his opponents, and he can lose contain as a result. He's not bad at run support, but it's a skill he needs to keep working on.

Chris: There’s a boom-or-bust element to his tackling. He’s fierce in run support and for every two or three big hits he’ll deliver, there’ll be one fly-by miss. Same goes for when he’s attacking a shorter, horizontal route or when ranging across the field on an outside run play.

Sometimes his angles weren’t the best. He wasn’t asked to be a run-support safety much in 2016 for Ohio State. While the flashes are there, this is clearly the weakness of Hooker’s game.

Adam: A willing participant in defending the run, Hooker will gladly throw a shoulder into a ball carrier, even if that means a running back notably larger than himself. Leading with the shoulder seems to be his preferred method of tackling, however, and that’s a massive pet peeve of mine because it leads to highly inconsistent results. As a safety, I NEED you to make a tackle for me. I don’t care how you do it, I don’t care if you tickle the guy to death, you just cannot allow the runner behind you - especially if your role is the one high, center fielder brand of safety. Granted, Hooker is not an in the box safety and no, run support is not his strong suit.

I’d also much prefer a player to be a very willing, but technically unsound tackler rather than the other way around. These things can be coached, and he’s very young, as a redshirt sophomore with one year of starting experience. That said, to pick him would be to mean that he was drafted in the top ten, and that leaves me somewhat uneasy.


Pass Coverage

Dan: I have only just started researching the players for this year, but I already feel confident saying that Hooker is the best coverage safety in the draft. He's on a level with Earl Thomas, and I don't expect any other player to match that this year. Hooker combines awareness, instincts, and excellent burst to cover the field from sideline to sideline like the NFL's greatest. Still young and developing, but his potential is sky-high.

Chris: Super-fast route and play recognition. Rarely fooled by misdirection, head or pump fakes. Super impactful as a "robber" in the short middle of the field because his special combination of size, agility, and route recognition. It almost seems like Hooker knows where the quarterback is going with the football a split second before everyone else on the field. He is long and athletic enough to match up in man too. Will be able to run with most of the bigger receivers and tight ends in the NFL.

Adam: In this year’s safety group, the award for best cover man goes to Hooker. Routinely left alone as the deep safety in Cover 1, he displayed an uncanny ability to keep everything in front of him along with elite level instincts when reading the play. Even when disguising coverages, which usually meant starting Hooker as the low safety only to have him drop back to the deep middle, he was rarely caught out of place. Adept in man coverage as well, Ohio State’s defense relied on his ability to lock down the slot against spread formations, and he was frequently used in man coverage when attempting to disguise corner blitzes. He snared multiple interceptions from these looks, along with a couple more from playing “robber” coverage, when one safety plays deep middle and the robber plays short middle at a depth of ten to fifteen yards. His coverage skills alone make him a day one pick.


Ball Skills

Dan: Hooker is capable of jaw-dropping feats with the ball. In his one season as a starter, he intercepted seven passes, and three of them were returned for touchdowns. His most impressive outing was probably the Bowling Green game, where he made a leaping grab of one pass and straight-up pick-pocketed the receiver on another. He does a great job of completing catches away from his body, has good timing and a fast transition to catch technique after playing coverage. Let him roam around the field, and he will be capable of intercepting eight or more passes in a season.

Check the ground Hooker covered on this interception.

Chris: He’s a highlight-reel waiting to be published. On a few of his interceptions, it seems impossible that he covered the amount of ground he did and was still aware enough to locate the football and make an assertive play on it. His athleticism yields tremendous body control when he shows off his impressive vertical leap to either breakup or intercept a pass. Because he’s so physically gifted, he appears to be calm when entering a contested-catch situation, and he typically makes the play.

Adam: This guy is no Leodis McKelvin. When the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand, Hooker reacts instantly and makes a beeline to the target with no wasted movement. More than once, he ended up playing the ball better than the intended receiver, quite literally taking it out of their hands and going the other way. A legitimate threat to make it to the endzone after a pick, he shows patience reading blocks and the ability to make players miss as he heads upfield. He reminds me quite a bit of Eric Berry when it comes to his prowess at not only taking the ball from the offense, but making a play himself once he’s taken it.


Final Word

Dan: It is early in the process, but at this point I can comfortably say there are only two names I'd consider for the Bills before Malik Hooker. One of those is Myles Garrett, and one of them is a quarterback, and only because of the positional value trump. (What, you thought I'd tell you which quarterback? It's still early. Be patient.) Hooker would be the perfect marriage of need and talent for Buffalo's defense, and he would lock down the back end of the field, allowing Sean McDermott to scheme up blitz after blitz. It's too bad he'll be long gone before the tenth pick - rare NFL talents don't last that long in the draft.

Chris: Two things scare me about Hooker; his relative lack of experience and the frequent run-game whiffs. Everything outside of that, especially his ability as a deep middle safety, screams Top 10 pick. Put it all together, and does that mean he’s really a mid-first round selection? Could be. But I think the emphasis on the passing game today will push him up a few spots from where he might be more ideally slotted value-wise. The Bills are in desperate need of a rangy free safety. Heck, every team would love to have one. Really good ones don’t come around often. And, yes, I think he has Earl Thomas-esque coverage ability. For as much as you’d be banking on development in run support — to me, the term “development” is a negative when scouting, as I don’t believe players change much by the time they’re in the NFL — Hooker’s rare specialty as a lightning-fast, sideline-to-sideline ball hawk makes him one of the best free safety prospects in a long time.

Adam: While young, relatively inexperienced, and inconsistent in the run game, Malik Hooker is an elite-level safety when it comes to defending the pass and shows the tools to evolve into a playmaker in the mold of an Eric Berry or an Earl Thomas. My discomfort aside, there isn’t another safety in this draft that I would trust alone in space like I would Hooker. I also remember Jairus Byrd being a pretty pathetic tackler as a rookie, only to end up a very sound tackler by the time the Bills parted with him a few years later. He strikes me as more of a mid-first round pick than a top ten prospect, but if the Bills feel confident in the rest of their safety group and run defense, they could do a LOT worse than bringing in a player of his caliber.


NFL comparison

Dan: Earl Thomas

Chris: Earl Thomas

Adam: Earl Thomas